Behind the Scenes: The Portland Clean Energy Initiative
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced in 2018 that we have only 12 years to take action and avert the most devastating scenarios of climate disruption, it only affirmed what Oregon communities living on the frontlines of climate change already know: the earth is warming, unusually extreme weather and deadly wildfires are harming people, and wealthy megacorporations are responsible for the damage.
In 2017, the City of Portland and Multnomah County passed goals to get our region to 100% renewable power, with clauses emphasizing the specific and unique needs of our city’s low-income residents and people of color. Meanwhile, those frontline communities in Portland were meeting to discuss a proactive approach to reaching 100% renewables without leaving anyone behind: the Portland Clean Energy Initiative. By putting just a 1% surcharge on the Portland sales of billion-dollar retailers, estimates showed that over $30 million could be generated every year for residential renewable energy projects, energy efficiency home improvements, job training in the clean energy sector, and carbon-sequestering green infrastructure including community gardens and urban tree canopies.
Groups with a long and rich history of serving Portland’s communities of color and low-income population gathered for many months to write the measure. They ended up with a broad, bold policy that ensured 50% of all renewable energy and energy efficiency projects would specifically benefit low-income residents and communities of color, and 20% of all funds be awarded to groups with a demonstrated track record of serving these constituencies. Job training was to support economically disadvantaged and traditionally underrepresented workers in the skilled workforce, including people of color, women, persons with disabilities, and those who are chronically unemployed. A steering committee for the initiative came together and consisted of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), the NAACP Portland Branch (the oldest chapter west of the Mississippi), the Coalition of Communities of Color, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, Verde, the Native American Youth and Family Center, Columbia Riverkeeper, the Audubon Society of Portland, 350 PDX, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club. Frontline leaders employed the privileged capacity of Oregon’s renowned and established environmental movement to collaborate to success.
The Portland Clean Energy Initiative now stands as Oregon’s first-ever environmental initiative created and led to success by communities of color. It seems certain that as those same communities work with the City of Portland to put it into place, it will not be Oregon’s last.In May of 2018, the Portland Clean Energy Initiative was filed with the City of Portland and its grassroots supporters mobilized to collect over 61,000 signatures from Portland voters. The petition drive succeeded in surpassing the 34,156 signature threshold to qualify for the November 2018 ballot, kicking off the “Get-Out-The-Vote” phase of the campaign. An enormous coalition of hundreds of local elected officials, national climate leaders, affordable housing advocates, labor unions, and more came together and stirred up a buzz of local, state, and national media attention. Hundreds of volunteers talked with tens of thousands of voters via multilingual phone banking and door knocking, delivering a landslide victory on November 6th with over 65% of Portland voters (over 200,000 people) saying a resounding YES to the Portland Clean Energy Initiative. Though big businesses outspent proponents of the measure by 2-to-1, the voter turnout was 2-to-1 in favor of the initiative.
The Portland Clean Energy Initiative now stands as Oregon’s first-ever environmental initiative created and led to success by communities of color. It seems certain that as those same communities work with the City of Portland to put it into place, it will not be Oregon’s last.
— Damon Motz-Storey is with Oregon's Physicians for Social Responsibility and Jainaira Ramirez is with OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon